A black and white image of the filmmaker Milisuthando Bongela.

South African director Milisuthando Bongela's first film is playing at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

Photo: The Sundance Institute

Milisuthando Bongela on Making A Film with Her Ancestors

The South African filmmaker's documentary feature, which is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, is a deeply personal film that touches on her life growing up in the Transkei, before it was incorporated into post-apartheid South Africa.

When the credits roll on Milisuthando Bongela’s documentary feature, Milisuthando, among those listed, along with the lighting director and song composers, are the names of her ancestors. For the South African director, it was important that her first film was indeed made in communion with those who came before her.

“They were always consulted,” she tells OkayAfrica. “I would talk to my ancestors about my ideas. I would say, ‘Okay, this is the direction we want to go in.’ Even in terms of the fundraising aspect of the film, we involved them. This is what was fun and groundbreaking about making a film as a South African in 2021 [when she finished shooting it], is that our knowledge systems have said that you involve your ancestors in absolutely everything that you do. And we did”

And so it is that Milisuthando makes its debut into the world at the Sundance Film Festival, having been selected for its World Documentary Competition section. The film, which Bongela started eight years ago when she was a fashion blogger, consultant and columnist, began life as an exploration of hair and identity. But over the years, she dug deeper to come up with a deeply personal visual essay into how apartheid shaped the way she sees herself.

Milisuthando traces Bongela’s childhood, through her relationship with her grandmother, in the so-called independent homeland of the Transkei, which was dissolved into South Africa when apartheid ended, to her family’s move to Joburg, and the interracial friendships she’s developed over the years. All of which, to probe the constructs she grew up within, and how those have impacted her sense of self.

But the doc is more than just a strikingly honest and exquisitely crafted look into parts of one person’s life; it’s the chance for other South Africans – and indeed other human beings born into the various unequal systems that operate in this world – to be in dialogue with where we come from and who we come from, and how an honest contemplation of this is necessary to inform a future that is truly more inclusive and loving and kind.

A still image from the documentary of Black women impeccably dressed at a fancy event, smiling and dancing. 'Milisuthando' is the debut documentary feature from Milisuthando Bongela that's premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo: The Sundance Institute

Bongela uses elements like archival footage of South Africans in notable moments of recent history, for example news footage of the first Black children to go to a previously whites-only school (known back then as Model C) and incorporates interviews with her own friends, in this case, about their experiences at these schools. In doing so, she uncovers aspects of post-apartheid that aren’t talked about enough, through an acute, emotive lens.

Poetic words and carefully-placed melodies convey the complicated nuances that filled the Mandela era. Bongela’s tapestry is rich, her colors vivid, and her touch ever so gently guided by those she calls into her space to inform and nurture her and her work. It’s a documentary that holds the promise of a filmmaker to follow and champion as she continues on her path.

Bongela, who was an inaugural fellow of the 2020 Adobe Women at Sundance Fellowship, spoke to OkayAfrica about the long road towards making the film.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You ground the film in your childhood memories, of growing up in a so-called independent homeland, the Transkei -- this is a part of South Africa's history that we don’t often see talked about. Why was this important to you?

The disjunction was always that I didn't see my own history represented. So when I switched on the TV, it was always people who grew up in eKasi (in the township) – Soweto, Khayelitsha – those were the stories that were represented. And at some point, as a child, I also thought I grew up eKasi. But I remember in 2013, at Nelson Mandela's house, before the funeral, my friends and I went there and we were all kind of singing with the group the song, My mother was a kitchen girl, My father was a garden boy. And I remember singing the song but in my heart, I was like, that is not true of me, and, do I have a right to have a right to sing the song? Because my history is different. My mother wasn't a kitchen girl, my father wasn't a garden boy. What were they? And why is it that my father had a desk job and typed on a computer and he had a briefcase, and why is it that my mother wore high heels and perfume? I grew up around people who were doctors and accountants and lawyers, and these were just our family, friends, you know?

And so the idea of the Transkei -- and we have not explored the homeland histories at all, in South Africa -- me exploring that was a way of validating my own experience to say, in South Africa's narrative of apartheid and transition to democracy, where do I fit in? Where did the homelands fit in? Why is it that when I was growing up as a child, when we wrote our nationality on forms, we were Transkein? And I was like, what happened to that?

I studied journalism but I've never been interested in the square facts. The facts don’t help us understand why things are the way that they are. And so I was trying to make sense of where I came from. When did I leave this place? And why did we leave this place? And when did whiteness become a reality in my life? And that was in 1992, when we left and moved into a white neighborhood. It's not an autobiographical story, but it borrows a lot from the trajectory of my own life.

Meet the Artist 2023: Milisuthando Bongela on “Milisuthando”

It took 8 years to make, what was your process as you worked?

It took a very long time because, having never studied film, but being a huge fan, I was always like, I should follow the traditional structure, I should respect the form and respect the known structure, especially if I'm coming from the outside. But every time we tried to push the story in that direction of having like a three-act structure and me narrate everything and explain everything to the audience, it just never felt right. So the process involved a lot of faith in myself. For my editor, for my cinematographer, for my producer, we are unashamed about how much faith we've had to have in trusting the direction we wanted to go in the film. The nonlinear kind of jumping between time and not using my voice in that way that tells the audience but invites the audience into a world where they can also discover. So the process was quite sacred.

It mirrored a lot of my own personal practices, in terms of the way I grew up, and again, that was a huge leap cinematically because I've never really seen that on screen, and I don't know but I just I knew we had something special on our hands and that it took a long time to explore and invalidate that. But in the end, I think we were like, Yeah, this film is unique regarding where it comes from, but most importantly, what it has to say about the subjects. I feel like South Africans are qualified to talk about race and to explore race because of our history. There's a lot to be heard from that part of the world that I want to share with the rest of the world.

So the structure also had to kind of break with traditional form. And just lastly, I am interested in the question of what is South African cinema in the 21st century? Being newbies at it, as Black people making films, as Black women making films, as women making films. We haven't been allowed to touch this technology, we haven't been allowed to engage cameras for a long time, and so now that we're here, how is it going to change?

A still image from the documentary of a photo of a Black girl in a school uniform, placed within the page of a diary.

In 'Milisuthando,' director Milisuthando Bongela explores her childhood and what it meant to move from the Transkei to Johannesburg in post-apartheid South Africa.

Photo: The Sundance Institute

There’s an incredibly vulnerable and honest conversation about whiteness with your producer Marion Isaacs in the film - one of the most powerful in the film. What was behind your decision to include that?

Because it was happening, because it was real, because that's exactly what we were going through. And in our pitching forums and stuff when we were still fundraising for the film, we realized early on that we have to be honest about our own relationship. Historically, the producers in South Africa are usually always white women and the directors are always, not always but sometimes, Black. And I'm always interested in the power dynamics between these roles, and because Marion and I are friends, and our friendship is built very much on long conversations, thorough conversations, vulnerable conversations about everything, and obviously, this is a documentary that's based on real life, it would have been dishonest not to include what was going on behind the scenes.

It was about my own relationship as a Black person to my racialization, and how a lot of the times as Black people, especially when we get together, we're always in this position of struggling against, and fighting, and we're always strong, and we're always with our amandla [power] fists up, and I didn't find a lot of space -- I haven't found a lot of public space, even in public discourse -- that represents the other side of that. Which is like, a residual fear, and a trauma, where you're like, Actually, there's a part of me that is afraid of white people. There's a part of me that is afraid of what might happen if I upset a white person. I'm not the only one that carries that. Our parents, as much as they were fighting, as much as they were strong, as much as they were always bold in the face of any kind of atrocity or discrimination, there was also this cowering that I noticed from the people I grew up around whenever our white person appeared. And so, for me, I was like, in my Black consciousness, in my ways of fighting against being racialized in public, what's the shadow side to that? What's the other side? What's the more quiet side and how do I carry my fear? How do I carry these things?

That scene is based on real life. That bathroom scene really genuinely did happen. And we didn't film as it was happening but immediately afterwards. I told Marion to take camera and just record what's happening to me right now because I'm freaking out about the fact that, as close as we are, as much as we talk about these things, and we call ourselves equals, like, are we really equal, actually? I was always interested in the fact that we can't be the only ones carrying pain and trauma. What is white pain? What does white pain look like? That's a real thing. The proverbial oppressor is holding the other end of the stick, and I was very interested in, if we are going to have a friendship -- or can we have a friendship? -- and what are the terms and conditions if so?

Given that you’ve been on this path for a good few years, what kind of advice would you offer to other budding filmmakers, having gotten your film into one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world?

I feel so privileged to be where I am today, to have taken the journey and the course, and the support that we've had from our funders from this festival, from other festivals. It's been absolutely incredible. The advice I have is you really have to serve your story and your voice. That's the most important thing. I know it's really hard, especially in this image-aggressive era that we're in where you see so much stuff on Instagram, so much stuff on Twitter, so much stuff on Netflix, and how stories are being told in very particular ways. And I can see in South Africa, we’re going into a very particularly glossy direction of telling stories.

For me, the thing is, what is the sound of your own voice? What is the shape of your own hand? If you draw, you don't want to mimic another artist. If I’m drawing a still life, what is my hand going to do to this apple? So the most important thing is to be at pains to discover what the sound of your own voice is. Because racism is a thing that's been spoken about since it existed by everybody and anybody who is an artist or who's an African artist or Black artist. So what is it that I'm going to say that can only come from me? When you have that perspective, it then tells you what your lighting is going to look like, it tells you what your set is going to look like, it tells you who exactly. And have the audacity and the gumption to take your idea seriously and to and to fail and have bad ideas. There were many bad ideas. I don't want to call them bad but 'lesser good ideas,' as William Kentridge says. Before we got to the ones that we were finally happy with.

And it's just tenacity, really. Because a lot of people can take cameras and point them to things. A lot of people can write poetry. Other people can edit beautiful, sexy samples of stuff. But the thing that you really need to discover, after your own voice, is the tenacity to continue. And to claim this thing of being an artist. It took me a very long time to say I'm an artist and now I'm like, Yes, I'm an artist.